Is the EU nearing its end?

European leaders proved unable to unite against the common enemy Covid-19 and failed

Photo: Ivailo Tsvetkov

“The man of forty crowns: Is there no way to eradicate this contagion ravaging Europe? They tried to weaken the poison of smallpox, why not try to do something about syphilis too?

The head physician: There could only be one solution - for all European rulers to unite… It would be much better if they come to an agreement and beat back humankind's common enemy…”

You may have recognised this exchange from Voltaire's 1767 philosophical short novel The Man of Forty Crowns. Now substitute HIV for smallpox, Covid-19 for syphilis, political leaders for rulers, and you will wind up in Europe again, only this time in the 21st century. A contagion is sweeping through the continent, but instead of joining forces in the face of a common enemy, European leaders seem more divided than ever. While even considering certain alliances - to the east of Europe - is out of the question.

Despite the tremendous advancements in science, medicine and technology achieved since Voltaire's era (when it took humankind several centuries to find the cure for syphilis), the results from battling Covid-19 are far from encouraging. Experts see two years as the optimistic timetable for dealing with the novel coronavirus, while five years is the pessimistic view.

It has been a year since the first wave of Covid-19 infections hit, some of us survived the second as well, and now we all await the third one… A growing number of people are getting this feeling that something is not right.

Let me make it clear that I am not a protester and I follow all mitigation measures. I am not an antivaxxer either - I am already on the vaccination list, waiting for my turn to come. I do not subscribe to conspiracy theories and I am not anti-European. But I cannot overlook the fact that questions have only been piling up since the start of the pandemic, whereas answers have been getting increasingly unsatisfactory. Furthermore, the actions of European leaders have been chaotic, to say the least, and therefore not particularly useful.

Following the initial shock, they were the ones expected to take the reins and prepare adequate measures. Instead, Brussels can only be heard parroting the familiar mantras of “solidarity”, “dialogue” and “transparency” and even more hackneyed slogans like “Together, we will overcome” while adding that “We should do this and we should do that” - with the combination of the two reminding me of the socialist era's “Give to us so we can give to you, comrades!” If any of those were any good, India would by now be heaven on earth and communism would have won all over the world.

The measures - more harm than good

In today's supposedly united Europe, countries are introducing their own restrictions at their own pace and schedule. Borders are getting reopened, then closed again. The free movement of people and goods is severely hampered. Presently, it is almost impossible to cross some land borders into Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Germany and Hungary. On 23 February, the European Commission (EC) gave those countries 10 days to restore freedom of movement or face legal proceedings. However, there is no indication that those nations will heed the ultimatum.

The rest of the measures to mitigate the spread of Covid-19 have also been in a state of flux for a year now. Certain business operations and personal activities are alternately being banned then allowed, and then back and forth again. The instructions defining the kinds of public spaces where people must wear masks and the types of masks required are constantly changing. The latest recommendation is for surgical masks, which are the cheapest option, to be used two at a time. The citizens of Hamburg, in Germany, were recently mandated to wear masks in parks, even as the local Airbus plant, which has become a serious Covid-19 hotspot, remained free of restrictions.   

Last summer the number of infections and deaths dropped significantly and we all breathed a sigh of relief. Some experts warned that a second wave would hit in the autumn, but the rulers - pardon me, I meant the leaders - somehow forgot to prepare for it. And now we are waiting for the third wave. People are literally going insane. For many, the measures did nothing but cause them to lose their job, while public assistance, for those who receive it, is not enough to support them and their children. Protests are growing, leading to clashes with law enforcement in some places. It is possible that discontent escalates to large-scale riots in the event of yet another lockdown. Even the most stable governments, and there are not many of those in Europe, would crumble under such pressure.

 Vaccines help those who sell them

 Fiasco, catastrophe, the biggest political failure of all time - these are some of the ways that many describe the EC's efforts to secure enough vaccines for its citizens.

Billions of euros of European taxpayers' money were poured into vaccine development and production. Moreover, the money was spent in advance, without guarantees of success. As it turns out, without guarantees of any kind really. Three of the vaccines were swiftly approved and with many compromises when it comes to following established protocol. Brussels promptly pointed to the emergency situation and promised to provide generous funding for other vaccines as well (author's note - as long as they are not from Russia or China, of course).

Unfortunately, there are not enough vaccines even for the people willing to take them, which is less than half of the EU population. I remember TV reports from newly constructed centres for mass vaccination in Germany at the end of last year - the facilities were all well done, more than sufficiently equipped and with trained medical teams on hand. The Germans are unmatched in that regard. But then the centres were closed due to lack of vaccines. It quickly became clear that some of the pharmaceutical companies lacked the necessary production capacity to meet their commitments. Naturally, they vowed to ramp it up. Others have since reduced the contractually agreed amounts (and continue to do so) with arguments deemed “unacceptable” by the EC. In other words, those companies are selling the doses - which have already been paid for - to third countries that offer to pay more.

The situation even inspired a joke: vaccines help those who sell them. This is absolutely true, especially given the fact that it is unclear whether those vaccines prevent transmission of the virus or merely protect against developing symptoms.

Either way, as of 26 February, slightly over 6% of EU citizens have been vaccinated. “And if you subtract children and teenagers, it is 8% of the adult population,” said Ursula von der Leyen during the latest European Council.

In comparison, Israel has already vaccinated two-thirds of its population. Meanwhile, Serbia has already surpassed Germany in that regard after tiring of waiting on the vaunted European solidarity and asking China and Russia for assistance. To the horror of European leaders, other Member States are turning their eyes to the East. Hungary, for example, is also using Russian and Chinese vaccines. Naturally, both Moscow and Beijing are pursuing geopolitical goals as well. But this is merely yet another sign of the EU's secondary role on the global stage.

In the meantime, the virus is circulating around the world and spawning new variants. Mass immunisation is the only solution. For it to be possible, though, there must be mass production first. And that could only happen if the patents are dropped. No way! The world's most powerful ruler - Big Pharma - is unlikely to ever let that happen. Finding a drug to treat Covid-19 also depends on this move. It is true that not every infection with Covid-19 leads to illness, complications and death. But the pharmaceutical industry is silent on the issue. The topic is not addressed by Brussels or any other administration worldwide either.    

Well, time will tell. It may be that the virus disappears on its own. Or maybe we will.

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